The Neighborhood United Church of Christ, Bath, Maine
The Neighborhood United Church of Christ in Bath, Maine is the 2022 winner of the Community Inspiration category of Interfaith Power & Light’s Cool Congregations Challenge for their persistence in successfully persuading the city to update code to allow solar installations in the historic district of their community. IPL congratulates The Neighborhood UCC!
“The people of The Neighborhood UCC are so grateful to receive this award. We are a congregation that embraces the belief that we see Jesus in all of our neighbors and in all of creation. Climate change will bring suffering to all of creation. We believe it is the role of faith communities to provide hope by demonstrating how we can live differently,” said Rev. Holly Reid, Co-Pastor of The Neighborhood.
Read their inspiring story in the words of Sam Saltonstall, member of the congregation:
In 2015 our small Congregation sold our old place of worship and purchased a small steakhouse in the downtown where we could both worship and use the commercial kitchen to help us feed the food insecure, an ongoing mission of ours. The building was heated with propane but had a perfect South facing orientation for solar, and we wanted to reduce our use of fossil fuels.
We faced four challenges when we initiated our solar effort in 2017:
1) We knew we must make the building more energy efficient and electrify our heating system to sensibly realize our solar hopes, but there was no money in the budget for energy improvements. 2) A leaky rubber membrane on the flat portion of the roof was failing and needed immediate replacement.
3) A search for the source of the leak led to the unhappy discovery that when the steakhouse owner added the pitched roof to what had been a flat-roofed gas station, he added no attic insulation.
4) We knew an expensive professional energy audit should guide us, but there was no money for that either. The path to solar would require a series of small steps to be undertaken one at a time.
A fifth challenge arose in April of 2020, when we discovered that the land use code forbad solar visible from the street within the historic district where we were located. We would have to get the code changed to realize our goal. Solar success suddenly seemed doubtful.
Back to 2017, we set about raising money ($1,300 for the roof repair, $450 for the energy audit). Our sexton sealed air leaks identified during the blower door test with inexpensive caulk. A team of church volunteers blew 14” of cellulose insulation up into the attic ($1,700). We inventoried and upgraded our lights, built and installed insulating window inserts, and continued to raise money with concerts, a plant sale and a silent auction. By 2019 we had enough to install a mini- split air source heat pump ($3,900). We were electrified!
It was time to face the solar challenge. We had already spent about $7,500, but the solar estimate was almost $23,000, more than three times as much as we had already raised. What to do?
We investigated third party ownership, but that did not make financial sense, then managed $3,000 of additional fundraising. A $4,400 solar bequest arrived. Still, we needed over $15,000 more. The eventual solution was to find four generous individuals willing to lend us the balance needed. But when our contractor went to pull the electrical permit, we discovered the zoning problem.
Determined, our solar team submitted a zoning code amendment for approval. The Planning Board did not like our first attempt, but passed our second one on to the City Council. They tabled it, sending it back. The Planning Board’s third wording attempt passed the Council unanimously, and on September 20th, we switched on our new system. Hooray!
While it is too early to know the reduction in CO2 emissions or the savings we will harvest, we believe the church will see about $9,000 in reduced electricity costs over the five year term of the loans. The bulk of our energy will be sourced from the solar system. By applying the savings to paying the loans back, we should only need to raise an additional $1,550 annually for five years, after which we are “home free”. Our just completed online auction netted $2,370 and may become our “go to” annual solar fundraiser.
Meanwhile, the change in the land use code makes it possible for others within the historic district to install properly sited solar arrays visible from the street. Without the initiative we took, this would not be possible. We had persuaded the City Council to not only treasure Bath’s past but to also support its clean energy future in a very specific way.
Last winter we put on a five part Zoom series called Bath Cares for Its Climate Future featuring sessions on En-ROADS, Efficiency Maine incentives, window inserts, heat pumps, climate activism, the need to build community resilience, and of course solar. We are in early contact with the Bath Climate Action Commission to support their efforts as our small city works with other communities to implement Maine’s Climate Action Plan. The work on our building can serve as an inspiring story for others. Yet there is so much more we can do.
We were inspired by the urgency of the climate crisis and the realization that local mitigation and adaptation efforts undertaken quickly are of critical importance. We view climate change as a moral issue which obligates us to act, a “threat multiplier” which most of all endangers the poor. It was this concern, not the eventual cost savings, that motivated our faith community’s support of solar.
We were also inspired to serve as a visible role model for our community, and for that reason persisted in acquiring a rooftop system rather than joining a distant community solar farm.
Then there are the inspiring financial benefits. Our loans will be paid off in five years, and in less than fourteen, our solar investment will be completely paid for with energy savings, while the system is warranted for 25 years and may well function even longer.
We were inspired too by the support we received from Planning Board and City Council members, neighbors who spoke at City meetings in favor of our project, and the appreciative folks who took part in our Zoom series.
This project took time, creativity and persistence. Our success has led to a heightened sense of confidence within our faith community, confidence that can lead to further efforts for the common good. A new project has already emerged. We are energized to transform the barren pavement surrounding our building into an attractive garden of native species. Step by step like the solar, we know we can do it!